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Fantastic Futurist Revival at Bard

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Jul 10th, 2016

From left: Tom Lee, Dan Moses Scheier, Tyler Micoleau, and Dan Hurlin with cast at Bard's LUMA Theater.

As part of Bard College’s Summerscape festival, “Puccini and His World,” currents of Italian culture during Puccini’s life are presented as background or foreground. Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed, a futurist puppet play from 1917, was an early unproduced work by Vogue and Vanity Fair designer Fortunato Depero, who in his youth was inspired by the inventor of Futurism, Tommaso Marinetti. While researching in Rome, Dan Hurlin, an Obie and Bessie Award winner noted for his theatrical puppet productions, discovered Depero’s puppet play manuscript. He has translated, designed, and directed the world premiere of this exciting and historic work in our neck of the woods.

People enjoy a different psychology with puppets. A viewer must bestow more effort into analyzing what happens with a puppet. The paradoxical result is that the viewer invests more emotion in a puppet than an actor. This remains especially true on the subject of violence: if an actor hits another actor we know that this is all play acting, but when a puppet (at the hands of a good puppeteer) injures another puppet, the viewer is apt to feel real pain.

There are three one-act plays, plus a short epilogue, performed without intermission. “Acrobatic Suicides and Homicides” provides a satire on several self-destructive behaviors, the most alarming of which is quarrelsome marriage with each partner destroying each other for no real reason. “Automatic Thief” follows the criminal adventures of a hypnotist, the Purple Man, who appears to have some similarities to greedy, populist politicians. “Electric Adventure” explores the attractions and hazards of new technology with an awareness that technology can be as destructive as it can be vital. The epilogue “Safe” reminds us that we are never safe, and that war is a living apocalypse. Here the film montage is especially effective and concluding splatter on the stage of what appears shockingly at first to be blood turns out to be red carnations. Throughout these skits there lurks a comic book humor that delivers buoyancy.

I’ve seen Hurlin’s translation of Depero’s manuscript. While Hurlin remains scrupulously faithful to the intent and script, he goes beyond it, expertly enhancing it with modern technology, especially with film, sound, and 3-D printing, yet all in the eclectic, inclusive spirit of Futuristic style. The Vorticist dance of geometric red shapes is as mesmerizing as it is memorable. The bunraku puppetry approach is stunningly appropriate. In traditional puppetry the puppet workers are usually in black to create an illusion of invisibility, but here they wear white kimono-like robes, which lend the ambiance of doctors or gods involved in directing behavior or surgery in a hospital, an eerie effect derived from the portrayal of gods in Greek drama. The throng of nearly invisible hands behind this extraordinary production is amazing.

Dan Moses Schreier’s original music offers compelling atmosphere. Jennifer Kidwell as the Depero minstrel narrator projects effective eloquence and tone with excellent diction. In the original manuscript the narrator of the first play is the Green Man, a pre-Bacchus, autochthonous archetype of Italian folklore, which would have been out of place in a production that strives for a universal audience.

This local premiere should be packing its bags for Rome, Europe, and Japan in short order. This production is such an original, organic, and unusually pleasurable experience it cannot be translated into mere words: one must see it to believe it—Futurism has been resurrected in resplendence! A video about the production appears below this article.

The production runs through July 17th. For more information or tickets: